Those who waited for the visit of US President William Clinton to Israel and Palestine in December 1998, in the hope that it would save the peace process, were disappointed.
For almost two years now, the peace process has been at a standstill. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was trapped between his declared policy and his own ideological tenets and narrow government coalition with the religious and right-wing national parties. It was obvious he enjoyed the situation, preferring to be forced by his coalition to adhere to his ideology rather than to act as a national leader. Netanyahu turns out to be incapable of providing the sort of national leadership which respects international obligations, and is sufficiently forwardlooking to know where the national interests of his country lie in the long term.
Only this can explain his efforts to evade the implementation of the Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP) and the later agreements based on it, known as the "peace process." According to these accords, arrangements were agreed upon for an interim period of five years during which land and authorities would be gradually transferred to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Final-status negotiations dealing with the very delicate issues of Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, borders, Palestinian refugees, and water were slated to start at the beginning of the third year, in May 1996 and to be concluded in a comprehensive settlement at the end of the five-year interim period, on May 4,1999.
In spite of the symbolic opening of the final-status negotiations in May 1996, the talks were frozen with the coming to power of the Netanyahu government in July of that year. The impression is that this Likud government is not at all willing to engage in serious negotiations, and is planning to convert the interim arrangements into the final settlement: In light of this development, the PNA has made it clear that the fiveyear interim period cannot be extended, nor will it be allowed to become a permanent arrangement. Deliberate delaying tactics by the Netanyahu government, the PNA announced,.will not warrant an extension of the agreed-upon time frame.
If a settlement is not reached by the end of the five-year period, that is by May 4, 1999, the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state on that date. Initially, the purpose of this declaration was to force Netanyahu's government back to the negotiating table. Now it has become an obligation the PNA owes its people. The only way the PNA can be persuaded to refrain from taking such a unilateral step is through the intensification of final-status negotiations, in tandem with real and substantive progress on the ground before May 4,1999. All the evidence shows that this is not in the cards. The Netanyahu government demands that the PNA abstain from taking any unilateral decision, but does nothing to help bring this about. The Israeli accusations that the PNA has not fulfilled its obligations are transparent ploys serving Netanyahu's efforts to justify his stand. In reality, his policy is to block the way to peace in the face of continued American efforts to revive the process and to effect a change in the unyielding rejectionism of the Netanyahu government.
The summit meeting in early November 1998, between Mr. Clinton, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat, was concluded - after ten days of sleepless nights, according to Mr. Clinton - with the Wye River Memorandum, which includes an agenda, a timetable, and clear steps to whose implementation both sides have committed themselves. This, it was agreed, would be carried out concurrently by both parties. Accordingly, the Israeli government implemented the first part of a military redeployment in some Palestinian villages in the north of the West Bank, as a step towards further redeployment in the center and south of the West Bank. Angered by this redeployment, the right-wing coalition in Mr.
Netanyahu's government threatened to withdraw its support for the government and to bring its rule to an end. Mr. Netanyahu toughened his tone and escalated his demands of, and accusations against the PNA: "If they do, they will take, if they do not, they will not take." As stipulated in the Wye River Memorandum, President Clinton came in December 1998 to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas, and to witness a big Palestinian meeting, where the Palestinian Council (PNC), the Central Council, the Legislative Council, the Executive Committee, the heads of ministries, and national figures would reaffirm the PNC resolution of April 1996 to abolish all articles of the Palestinian Covenant that are in contradiction with the peace process and the letters of mutual recognition, and would reconfirm the letter conveying this resolution to President Clinton.
This meeting took place as planned and the reaffirmation was accepted by an overwhelming majority, to the satisfaction of President Clinton and all international observers and media representatives who came from all over the world to cover this historic event. Prime Minister Netanyahu could not deny its significance. He described it as a "positive development," but, as expected, he immediately came out with a list of new demands and conditions to be implemented by the Palestinian National Authority.
Mr. Netanyahu has, long ago, missed the chance to free himself of the blackmail of the religious and right-wing national parties by forming with the Labor party a national-unity government - an option, at the time, seriously considered by some Labor leaders. It is now too late. Labor would rather hold new elections to win and form the new government, or to improve its position in any future coalition government.
There is no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu has wasted the historic opportunity to become the second right-wing leader - after Menachem Begin - who could bring Israel peace and the recognition of its long-standing enemy, the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, Menachem Begin's shoes have proven too big for Mr. Netanyahu. The coming months will witness a freeze in the peace process, but no one can guarantee that this freeze will not be accompanied by an upsurge of violence. Neither freeze nor violence are wanted nor sought by the majority of the two peoples of Palestine and Israel.